Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Revisiting The Kalakshetra Saree

"Art is life. It is character. People think of art as if it were something far away from themselves. You may think of me as a dancer, an artist, but are you not going to be artist also? Have you not some art in you? My idea is that everyone is an artist, for everyone responds to beauty."

Rukmini Devi Arundale

Rukmini Devi is survived by Kalakshetra,  the magnificent academy she founded in 1936 for the preservation of traditional values in Indian arts and crafts, especially in the field of Bharatanatyam. It is a premier institute today, imparting training in classical dance and music to scores of students who go on to become dedicated teachers, researchers and performers of their art, taking it with them all over the world. Spread over a serene campus in Chennai, the institute reflects its founder's views on art and beauty in everything it does. The performance spaces, the classrooms, the lovely kolams, the colourful practice attire of the students, and the overall ambience oozes tradition and beauty.

I have had the pleasure of watching several dance dramas originally choreographed by Rukmimi Devi, and later revived by her illustrious students who are renowned dance gurus now. In all of them, not only the dance steps, but other things like the music and the costumes of the dancers are also presented according to her specifications.

The dance dramas are exquisite, but the focus of this post is on costumes and sarees. Rukmini Devi's aesthetic sense is evident in the beautifully colour co-ordinated costumes, with striking contrasts and unusual combinations. They are always very pleasant, and nothing is ever over-the-top.

Rukmini Devi maintained the same sense in her own sarees. She directed weavers to make elegant sarees for herself, and dance attires for her students. Slowly, a Kalakshetra saree came to be known as a precious possession amongst admirers.

Keeping in mind that textiles were an essential part of her dance dramas, Rukmini Devi had set up a weaving centre in a thatched hut in the premises just a year after Kalakshetra came into being. This not only gave means of livelihood to weavers, it also helped to keep the traditional craft alive at a time when markets were flooded with foreign-made clothes. That small hut has grown into a larger production unit called the Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC) over time.

Recently the CERC has revived some of Rukmini Devi's sarees. They are on view at an exhibition at the CERC until March 25. The original sarees are more than 50 years old. They are also part of the exhibition, neatly spread over white sheets on long tables. Also on view are the recreated sarees. There are 15 looms where inspired by the vision of Rukmini Devi, trained weavers are busy creating masterpieces in pure silk . Those who would like to own a piece of this beautiful heritage, can do so by placing an order for any of the sarees at the exhibition.

Photos by Lata
I am at the exhibition on a bright afternoon. The new sarees, neatly clipped to stands, are fluttering gently under the rotating ceiling fans. An artisan is bent over a parrot woven in one of the old sarees. Armed with a magnifying glass, he is busy transferring the pattern on a sheet of graph paper with dots and crosses. A little distance away, a stunning saree in yellow/orange and magenta is proudly displaying the same motif on its pallu. Besides four parrots, the pallu has two rows of shapely deer. The symmetry, proportions and colour scheme all complementing one another to make an outstanding work of art.

The CERC team is putting in a lot of hard work in creating these sarees. Everything from the yarn, to the zari, the motif, and the colour has to be just right. One feels a sense of loss looking at the original sarees, some in reasonable condition, some tattered. But at the same time, the newly woven creations swaying gently alongside reassure you about the preservation and continuation of this legacy.  

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